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02/10/2009

At Sea, Elephant Island

Another calm morning greeted us as we pulled back the curtains in our state rooms. An entourage of wandering albatrosses and white-chinned petrels had materialized during the night, and were eagerly following us southward. The air outside had a chill to it, and a glance at the sea water temperature chart on the bulletin board clearly showed that, while we had slept the night before, the Minerva had crossed the Antarctic Convergence and we were now squarely in Antarctic proper.

After breakfast, we joined Ornithologist Rich Pagen for a lecture called “Penguins: Black and White and Guano All Over”. Rich provided a fascinating introduction to the penguins that inhabit this part of the Southern Ocean. We learned that the brush-tailed penguins build nests out of stones, and these stones are like jewels or currency to them. On the other side of the spectrum, the male emperor penguin uses the top of its feet as its nest, incubating its single egg during the harsh winter months, fasting the entire time. We learned a lot, and we left the lecture hall overwhelmed with anticipation of experiencing our first penguin colony.

Following the lecture, we grabbed a cup of coffee and headed out on deck for some fresh air. A few fin whales were spotted, as well as a whole assortment of seabirds. Prions darted in and out of sight as their slate grey backs camouflaged perfectly with surface of the sea, while albatrosses soared in the incessant wind, rarely flapping their long thin wings.

Before lunch, we gathered in the main lounge with Expedition Leader Suzana Machado D'Oliveira Harker for a mandatory briefing about conduct while ashore in Antarctica. The essential aims of this talk were to ensure that our visits there are conducted safely, and that the environment and wildlife are not disturbed by our presence. Following lunch, Photo Coach Richard Harker gave a talk called “Taking control of you camera”, during which he went into detail on concepts like histograms and exposure compensation, which would help us greatly in capturing Antarctica in photos.

After Richard’s lecture, the Minerva approached a mist-shrouded Elephant Island, a place literally emanating coldness as icy winds blew down from its lofty glaciers. Captain Giovanni Biasutti carefully maneuvered the ship into a small bay on the north shore of the island. We had arrived at one of the most significant sites in the annals of polar history, the place where twenty-two of Ernest Shackleton’s men spent some four winter months awaiting an uncertain return of “The Boss”.

The wind and wave-lashed shores of the rocky spit called Point Wild looked none-too-inviting, despite the fact that we were visiting during “the favorable season”. The large swell and biting cold served as reminders of what life in this desolate outpost must have been like. A narrow line of boulders comprised the beach which had been the home site for the group, where two small upturned boats had served as their meager shelter. The 22-foot James Caird, with six men aboard, was launched from this very site and was the only hope the men had of anyone learning their fate.

Captain Giovanni Biasutti brought the ship back out into open water, we made our way around the eastern tip of Elephant Island en route to Antarctica. Meanwhile, Marine Mammalogist Garv Hoefler presented a talk on whales and dolphins entitled, “Life in a hostile environment: Tales of the whales”. Garv explained that the cetaceans had evolved from a terrestrial ancestor that had taken back to the sea, and that sound’s ability to travel well in water has resulted in it being critical to communication between individual whales. After Garv highlighted some of the species we might encounter on our voyage, we felt well prepared and many of us headed outside after the talk to see if we could spot a whale or two. As if on cue, a group of fin whales appeared and we lined the ship’s railing to get a look at these massive creatures.

Before dinner, we gathered for the first of our Recaps, during which the Expedition Staff went over some of the highlights of the day and briefed us on what we hope to do tomorrow. After a relaxing dinner, many of us bundled up and headed outside to watch darkness fall over the Southern Ocean. Back in our state rooms, we drifted off to sleep thinking excitedly about our first landing tomorrow in Antarctica.
 

   

A post-breakfast crowd enjoys sightings of petrels, prions and albatross.

We sight Fin Whales from the lecture room!

Our leader, Suzana, gives us all the IAATO briefing ensuring our optimum enjoyment without disturbance of Antarctica.

With JJ demonstrating, Suzana advises us of proper dress code for going ashore.

JJ and Suzana demonstrate the time-tested zodiac grip for getting in and out of the zodiacs.


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